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Writing the Research Paper

Unit II: Beginning Research

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Unit II: Researching to Refine the Subject

“But I should like to know—” Pippin began.

“Mercy!” cried Gandalf. “If the giving of information is to be the cure of your inquisitiveness, I shall spend all the rest of my days in answering you. What more do you want to know?”

“The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas,” laughed Pippin, “Of course! What less? But I am not in a hurry tonight. At the moment I was just wondering about the black shadow. I heard you shout ‘messenger of Morder’. What was it? What could it do at Isengard?”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Introductory Remarks

You've now spent several hours just coming up with your topic. You are anxious to get started — after all, you can probably write a decent essay in the time that you've spent so far on this assignment! But this isn't an essay on material that you already know, this is research. The keywords here are patience and perseverance. You have asked a question to which you don't know the answer.

You can't look everywhere for that answer. You have limited resources available: limited evenings you can spend surfing the web, limited times you can ask your dad to drive you to the library (or more likely in these days, use his computer for research), and a due date from your instructor that you know isn't really as far off as it seems. Somehow, you have to limit the topic you've chosen to the resources available.

This unit shows you how to start your investigation by identifying likely sources that will lead to more detailed information. These sources will not only help you break your topic down into subtopics and show you how to limit and organize the material, they will also provide you with keywords to use in looking further.

Points for this Unit

Conducting Your Initial Research

Standard Reference books

Although so much information is available on the World Wide Web these days, it is still useful to consult “hard” resources like books and paper periodicals, especially if your subject is historical or narrowly academic. For our purposes, we'll consider "published" materials anything that has been presented in book or journal form by a third party (not the author), even if you review it online or as a digital copy. Such materials are likely to have been peer-reviewed, and more reliable than online "unpublished" sources such as a person's own website or blog.


If you are writing on a research project assigned for a class, one good place to start is with your course text materials. Is the research area covered by the textbook? In the text, how is it broken down? By geographical area? Time period? Influential people? Related subtopics?

These divisions may suggest how you could limit your own topic. For example, instead of "What was the Romantic movement?", you could choose to ask that question as "What was the Romantic movement? How was it expressed in French painting prior to 1880?" This limits an unmanageably large question to one with specifically directed research possibilities. You can ignore, except to acknowledge that the Romantic movement had expression outside French painting, other aspects of Romantic expression, such as German music or English literature.


Look up your research terms and make sure that you not only understand the primary definition of each, but also any alternate or secondary meanings. What is "Romance" as an art movement? How is is the term "Romantic" used? What limitations do you want to place on it for the purposes of this research activity?

If you plan to use a dictionary definition, copy the definition and note the dictionary title, edition, date of publication, and title. Words do change their popular meanings over time...just check the term "gay" in a 1940s dictionary and a 1990s one to see the difference in accepted definitions.


Check to see whether your subject is covered by an encyclopaedia. How is the encyclopaedia article broken down into sections? What questions are left in your mind as your read? Think about the claims that the article makes, and ask yourself if the article explains the evidence for these claims. Sometimes "generally accepted" conclusions are a fruitful area for investigation in the original source material, which may have been misinterpreted.

Is there an area of the article that particularly excites your imagination? That might be a good place to concentrate your own research.

If the article lists "other places to look", make a note of the kind of topics the article authors considered related to the main one.


A bibliography is a collection of sources in a given topic. Most academic areas have bibliography collections or lists of primary and secondary sources on key subjects. These may be available online. Check the bibliographies of encyclopedia or Wikipedia articles that you review. They may give you leads on possible authorities to consult, or topics to follow up.

Other possibilities: atlases, almanacs, handbooks

Check the reference area of the library or the web for other kinds of reference materials. Are there maps of the region you should look at? Are there almanacs with detailed information about the year or period in question? Are there handbooks with definitions or values you should check and use, if your research requires you to analyze data and make calculations?

Periodical Indexes

A periodical index lists the articles in a given set of periodicals on a particular topic. Some academic journals publish their own indexes; in many fields, an article service creates what a mounts to an annual bibliography of published work in the field.

An example of a periodical index is the ISIS cumulative index, which is published periodically by the History of Science Society. It contains a bibliography of all articles in the field of the history of science published since the last such index, from may different academic journals produced all over the world (which means some of the articles won't be in English).

"Card Catalogues" — Modern Library Catalogues

Once, information about the books in a collection were kept in precise format on small, buff-colored cards in drawers in the library lobby. Now, this information is often available online, and you can look up material before you go anywhere, and often access digitized copies over the web. Your local library system or university library will have a publicly-available index that lists its holdings by author, title, and subject. Check your subject in the index and look at the titles that are listed when you do such a search.

What titles are irrelevant? Did the term "romance" bring up medieval love stories? Children's books? Novels set in the Regency period in England?

Are there many titles that seem relevant? If so, your topic is probably too broad, and you need to limit it. Look for keywords that appear over and over in the titles of books found, or look for some common characteristic, such as a geographic location, time period, person, or event, on which you can concentrate. One approach in this situation is to pick some specific person or event and show how it exemplifies the general characteristics of the larger subject, for example, "Eugène Delacroix's paintings as an example of French Romantic painting."

If your subject search turns up only one or two books, then your subject is probably already too narrow, and you will need to broaden it.

The Web

Search Engines

You can often get a picture of the current state of research in an area by looking at resources available on the Web, especially if your topic is from one of the sciences (the web was originally created, after all, to further the research of nuclear physicists associated with CERN in Switzerland!), or is on a controversial area of some field, such as evolution theory, or whether Richard III killed the nephews who stood between him and the English throne.

Learning to use a web search engine is an exercise in logic. If your first searches turn up too much or too little, you will need to use the terms that you gleaned from the textbook glossary, the dictionary definitions, and the encyclopaedia articles to broaden or narrow your search.

Check the search engine rules for advanced searches. In most engines, a boolean “AND” search requires that two terms joined by AND be present on the web page, but not necessarily together. “French AND painting” will turn up a page with “The French fought a battle” and “Whistler's painting of his mother was widely admired.” that may not contain anything on French painting as such. A pair of terms in quotations like “French painting” requires that exact phrase to be present, and will locate pages on French painters and their works.

Some websites will be general and contain links to other sites, but no real specific information. You may follow many links before you get to actual details about your subject area.

A note about Wikipedia and Online Resources

Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, but the level of information in a given article can range from very general to graduate-level specific. Be patient and follow links for terms you don't understand. Recognize that as with the web in general, a given term on Wikipedia may turn up several topics, and you will have to identify the ones you need.

Web Libraries

Google, the Internet Archive, the Gutenberg Project, and several other archive projects have scanned millions of books, and many of these are available for you to read for free.

If you consult a website, collect at a minimum the following information:

Searching the web has particular perils, however. Anyone with a service provider and a basic knowledge of HTML can create a website and claim expertise in a field. [It is harder to get published cheaply, so written sources are usually, although by no means always, more likely to be reliable than web sources.]

Authoritative sources

Regardless of the format, you need to check the validity and expertise of the authority producing the information. Academic sources, that is, works published by professors at recognized universities and colleges are more likely to be reliable and follow the accepted rules for research in a given field than independent studies, because the reputation of the academic institution is at risk as well as that of the individual. Works published by institutions with vested interests in the outcome, such as drug studies done by pharmaceutical companies, are more suspect.

In any single instance, of course, it is possible for prejudice or agenda to drive the investigation or interpretation of data of the most objective-sounding or highly-respected author; it is also possible that a given independent researcher has produced work of impeccable integrity. The best recourse for you is to cite not only the source but some of the source's background, especially if you have a controversial topic and are presenting conflicting interpretations; this allows your reader to make up his or her own mind.

Summarizing your research: Creating a list of sources to check

Once you have completed a cursory survey of the various resources available to you, you should identify the ones that you will use to pursue the topic further. Your list should include some general sources (bibliographies, encyclopaedia articles, the most useful periodical lists) and some specific works that turned up in your library catalog and website searches. List more than you think you will actually need; some of your sources may be "duds" with no real information about your particular part of the subject.

Reading the sources on this list is where you will spend your time for the next few weeks. They may in turn lead you to other texts and websites, or (depending on your topic), to artifacts or people to interview, but at least now, you have some place to start.

Limiting the Topic Further: the thesis statement

You should now have a better idea of the scope and possibilities of your thesis question. Look at it again. Can you limit it in time period? Geographic location covered? Works or events discussed? People described?

You should now rewrite your research proposal with the list of sources in mind, include a thesis question that you honestly believe can be answered with the resources at your disposal, and describe the research that you will do to answer it.

Assignment for this Unit

Note Bene: If you are also preparing this paper for another course, be sure that you comply with any requirements for your other instructors in addition to the assignment below. If you receive conflicting instructions for similar activities, please check with the instructors of both this course and your other course to determine whether substituting one class activity for the other course is acceptable.


  1. Look up your topic in at least three of the following common printed sources:
    • Dictionary
    • General encyclopaedia
    • Course textbook glossary
    • Atlas
    • Almanac
  2. Identify a bibliography source available at the library or online that you can use. Look up your topic there and select 3-5 sources that look likely. Make sure that the sources are available from the local library or that you have access to them.
  3. Check at least one periodical index at the library. Identify 3-5 magazine or journal articles that deal with your topic.
  4. Check your local library system or university library catalog for works on your topic. Most public, college, and university libraries have converted to online library systems, and your public library may available over the internet.
    • Type in your title and check under subject matter. How many references were found?
    • Look at the titles for 20-30 references [if you didn't find that many sources, look at all of them!]. List the keywords that appear in the titles.
    • Choose 5-10 references (in addition to the articles and resources identified in #2 and #3) to look at for further information.
  5. Chose 2-3 keywords for your topic. Use two different Web Search engines, such as Yahoo! and Infoseek, to look up the combination of your keywords.
    • How many citations did the web search engine find?
    • How are the citations rated?
    • Are any of the citations with high ratings bibliographic?
    • Which sites appear to be the most likely to help you? Why?
    • Follow links to at least two websites. Will either be useful to you? Bookmark them for further research.
  6. Revise your topic to concentrate on one of the areas that you found, and determine the approach that your research will take. Identify at least five sources that you can use to research your paper and create your working bibliography.
  7. Rewrite your proposal and thesis statement to reflect the narrowed and focussed research you will now pursue. (If you are doing this for an outside course, submit your changes and get your teacher's approval before continuing).

Enter your response directly into the Scholars Online Writing the Research Paper Moodle forum for this unit. Review the submissions from your fellow students and offer constructive criticism to help them refine their ideas.